“God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God and God abides in him or her.” If that is true, and it is, then we can say the same thing about family: “God is family and whoever abides in family abides in God and God abides in that person.” The theology of family roots itself here. Among other things, this means that a family is really a religious community, a church, the place where we participate in God’s own life. What is meant by this?
It is easy to misunderstand this because we tend to romanticize it. To define God as love is not to say that God is romantic love and that we abide in God only at those times when we feel in love. Rather what is affirmed is that God is a community, a trinity, a flow of giving and receiving between three persons. God is a family and when we participate in a family we experience the very flow of God’s life. Family life then is church life. To participate, in a healthy way, within a family is, in a manner of speaking, to go to church. But this too is often misunderstood.
What does it mean to live within a family? Too often we think of family mainly in terms of emotional intimacy. We imagine family (real family … not like our family!) as romance, warmth, like-mindedness, continual affirmation, deep mutual revelation, and constant support. In essence, we conceive of it in terms of our emotional and romantic needs. But those things, good as they are, are not ultimately what makes for family. What does make for family?
Someone once said that love is not two persons facing each other, but two persons facing in the same direction and living in the same spirit. Ultimately that is what makes family, both anthropologically and ecclesially. Ecclesially this is easy enough to explain: What makes for church is not, first of all, emotional intimacy (good as that is) but a gathering around the person of Christ and a common sharing of one Spirit – the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, gentleness, faith, and chastity.
Similarly, in terms of ordinary family, a marriage and the family it produces is not so much grounded on a man and a woman coming together sexually and emotionally as it is in a man and a woman coming together morally, that is, at a level that precisely has them facing in a common direction rather than narcissistically fixated on each other. Moral intimacy, more so than sexual intimacy, is the foundation of family, just as it is the foundation of church. What are the component parts of it?
This too shouldn’t be falsely-romanticized. Moral intimacy is not, at its most important level, being kissed in the soul by that delicious feeling we sometimes get when we sense that another person holds as precious all the same things we do. There is value in this of course. To sense another person as a soulmate is to have family in a real sense because to be in family is to be at home and we are at home precisely when we are with another person who shares our deepest values.
However, family and home, as we well know, generally have more of an everyday than a romantic face to them. Home and family are more than romance. They are the everyday, sometimes dram, business of staying together, eating together, praying together, sharing money and material things together, celebrating occasions together, being mutually accountable to each other, challenging and correcting each other, and carrying each other’s pathologies and weaknesses. Such are the functions of home and family. Such too is the function of church.
In the end, family life and church life are part of the same thing; in both we participate in God’s life. Among other things, this means that family life is not like church life, it is part of it. To participate healthily in a family is to be part of a church. The family is not secular while the church is divine, mundane while the church is holy, and the place of ordinary life while the church is the place of worship. To be in a family is to be in a church; perhaps the most important church many of us will ever experience. Every family is meant to be a religious community and is meant to do for us exactly what a religious community or church does for its members. And what is that?
By abiding in family – by sitting down with each other around a kitchen table, by sharing the frustration of balancing a common cheque book, by celebrating each other’s joys and sorrows and everyday life, by offering each other consolation and correction, and by putting up with each other’s coughs, phobias, and sins – we experience church. In both, family life and church, our lives break open beyond ourselves and God can enter.